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Parlay - The Best Way to Facilitate Online Class Discussions

As an English teacher one of my favorite things to do is hold whole-class discussions on novels we're reading, articles, or any current event topic. Socratic Seminars, round robins, philosophical chairs, you name it, I love to get my students doing most of the talking during class.

However, I usually reserve these conversations for at-school days, when we can all be together in a circle (or various other set ups). Moving class entirely online presents a new challenge for facilitating a whole discussion over a virtual meeting software like Google Meet.

The main difficulty is in determining who speaks when. In a live class, we have the tried-and-true method of raising our hands (if your district is using Zoom, you have a hand-raising feature, which would greatly help with this process). Even in Socratic Seminars when we aren’t hand raising, we can read subtle cues that tell us when someone is about to talk, i.e. an intake of breath, a gesture, a look...

On Google Meet, not only is there no hand raising feature, but it's also hard to see everyone’s video at the same time (especially in average class sizes of 30), not to mention many people have their cameras turned off and their microphones muted. It becomes impossible to tell who is about to naturally jump into a conversation, and you end up with a lot of awkward starting and stopping.

“Sorry, go ahead.”

“No, you go!”

I was considering what to do about this conundrum in the face of starting our persuasive/argumentative unit (where I traditionally like to have students participate in a series of philosophical chairs discussions) when I remembered Parlay, an online discussion platform.

There are two types of online discussions you can facilitate through Parlay. An asynchronous, chat room style discussion, or a live discussion.

Chat Room Style Discussion aka "Online"

To set up the chat room style discussion, you begin by creating a new “round table,” on Parlay then creating criteria for the discussion, such as the learning targets, questions/prompts, and sentence starters you’d like your students to use as they respond to one another.

Then, you invite your students to join using a link or unique join code.

Once they are in the chat room, your students can post their responses, and view/respond to their classmate responses. You know, like a chat room!

Here’s a couple of things that make this unique:

1. Student names can be hidden

If you allow this feature, instead of displaying the students’ real names, they will be given pseudonyms and avatar pictures (all of which are based on famous academics). As the teacher, you can still see who is who, but the anonymity for students is really great for eliminating social anxiety and bias in a class conversation (especially amongst my 8th graders - gah).

2. Sentence starters

The feedback sentence starters you created in the criteria/set up, appear for your students in a helpful little dialogue box below their text box as they type responses to their classmates - they’ll have no excuse not to use those sentence starters!

As the teacher, you can determine how long to leave the round table running, you can keep it open to host a longer term discussion (over a period of days or weeks) or set a strict time limit to try and ensure all your students are participating at similar times.

Live Discussion

When creating a new round table in Parlay, your other option is to hold a “Live” discussion. This tool is essentially an advanced system of hand-raising.

In a Live Round Table, you can invite your students to join (again, with a link or join code) and as they enter the discussion, each of them will see a toolbar at the bottom of their screens where they are prompted to add to the discussion, build upon the discussion, propose a new idea, challenge an idea, or ask a question.

Once the student (or teacher!) clicks one of those icons, their avatar (and real name this time) will appear in the center of the screen, indicating they would like to contribute to the conversation in one of those ways.

Here’s why this is great for an online class discussion. On a Google Meet class session, you can start by introducing the topic, reading a source material, and establishing the norms for the conversation. Then, you can copy/paste the Parlay join link into the chat box for your students to follow.

I usually start the discussion by asking a super high interest question to try and get the ball rolling right away, then as soon as I see a few students clicking in to “contribute” to the discussion, I’ll call on them to unmute their mic and answer. It looks something like this:

“It looks like Kaden would like to start off the discussion, Kaden?”

Kaden answers

“And now Ella wants to challenge something Kaden said, Ella?”

Ella answers

“I’m going to wait a few more seconds to see if anyone would like to build off of Ella’s idea before I let Tyler challenge…”

And so on.

Once the students are finished with their response they simply click the “tap out” button and their Avatar will disappear from the center of the screen.

Not only does this system make it easy for the teacher to act as a moderator for who talks, when, the different types of contribution icons also help you to shape the discussion, calling on students to challenge and build on ideas, before calling on students who want to introduce a new idea.

There are a couple of additional features here that make this tool really cool as well. Each Avatar will indicate in the top right-hand corner how many times a student has already “tapped in” to the discussion, so you can try and be as equitable as possible in allowing students to equally contribute to the conversation.

Additionally, there are two icons for the listening students to interact with during the discussion. The “hand clap” gives real-time feedback to contributing by showering confetti into the screen. There is also an “ear” icon for listening students to click on their classmates’ avatars, indicating they want to hear from that student next.

I recently facilitated an activity called philosophical chairs (via Cult of Pedogoy) using Parlay and Google Meet. I was surprised at how well the tool worked to help us maintain a natural flow in conversation, and I highly recommend it for any teacher hoping to replicate a live class discussion online.

Images via the website.

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